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9 March 2022

Red Rocket is a mouth-watering study of an irredeemable narcissist

In Tangerine and The Florida Project, Sean Baker rendered hardscrabble lives in carnival colours. Now he turns his eye to an ageing porn actor.

By Ryan Gilbey

Movie trivia question: which film with a two-word title (the first is “red”, the second has six letters) and an idiosyncratic approach to colour features an alienated figure adrift in an industrial landscape? Until now, the only answer was Red Desert. For that 1964 masterpiece, the director Michelangelo Antonioni gave grass, shrubs and trees a lick of paint when nature fell short.

Like Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s film, Mikey Davies (Simon Rex), the hero of Red Rocket, is dwarfed intimidatingly by smoke stacks, factories and petrochemical refineries. Arriving by bus in the scraggly Gulf Coast suburb he once called home, Mikey pitches up at the pale-yellow bungalow where his ex, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother Lil (the late Brenda Deiss), live like two scrawny sparrows in a cluttered nest. They are wary of him, not to say actively hostile, but this sinewy sweet-talker charms his way on to their sofa with promises, hard-luck stories (“I slept in an alley, I used my shoes as pillows”) and an infectious can-do spirit.

If only potential employers didn’t want him to explain the 17-year gap on his CV. He may be an award-winning actor under the screen name Mikey Saber, but his statuettes (“Best Oral”) are more devalued even than Golden Globes, and none of his 2,000 movies (The Fast and the Fury-Ass, anyone?) would rival Citizen Kane for the title of greatest film ever made.

Chagrined to find that people aren’t clambering over one another to hire a middle-aged former porn star, he falls into selling weed for the drawling, red-wigged Leondria (Judy Hill), making a success of himself with some unpromising product. Soon he is upgrading Lil’s ashtray from plastic to glass, and taking mother and daughter out on the town. “This is the day to get whatever you want,” he says grandly as they survey the delights at Donut Hole.

This is also the day Mikey realises what he wants. Raylee (Suzanna Son) is a chirpy 17-year-old Donut Hole employee who goes by the name “Strawberry” and proves amenable to the idea of him using the shop to sell weed. She is amenable to him in general, ditching her part-time boyfriend without quite grasping the plans Mikey has for her.

[see also: Ari Wegner: “There’s an assumption that a proper cinematographer is a dude”]

One of the ironies of Red Rocket is that a comic character study of a predatory narcissist should look so mouth-wateringly delicious. Shooting on colour-saturated widescreen 16mm, the cinematographer Drew Daniels shows the afternoon sun caressing the walls of the Donut Hole building until the pink-and-lemon brickwork seems to sigh with pleasure. Even the glum interiors of Lexi’s home spring to life when the TV screen flares in the darkness – the image jumps and jolts, no matter that the couch-potato characters are sitting stock still.

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The director and co-writer Sean Baker specialises in rendering hardscrabble lives in carnival colours. In Tangerine and The Florida Project, he proved that stories steeped in poverty need not look correspondingly dour. Red Rocket has a potential obstacle and irritant, though, in the shape of its irredeemable protagonist. Rex, who has a colourful background of his own (brief dalliances as a solo porn star, a rapper and an MTV VJ), is charismatic enough to leave no doubt about Mikey’s powers of persuasion. The question is whether audiences will tolerate the company of someone who starts out bad and gets worse. The opening song – *NSync’s pop anthem “Bye Bye Bye” – seems to bid farewell to Mikey before the film has even begun.

Not for nothing is Red Rocket set against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential primaries, with Donald Trump on television warning of the fraudulence of an election that hasn’t happened yet. As this poison contaminates the political climate, Mikey’s own pernicious influence intensifies. Baker draws a visual link between smoking (Mikey rolls joints in little stars-and-stripes cigarette papers) and shots of the polluted skyline; this is toxic masculinity on an environmental level.

The chauvinism of the title character in Alfie, played by Michael Caine, may have been similarly relentless, but he did at least experience a moment of reckoning along with the shock of his own vulnerability. For Mikey not to entertain even a glimmer of self-awareness is true to the Trumpian model, though it results in a more impoverished experience for the audience. A doughnut can get by with a hole in the middle. Films without a centre tend to struggle.

“Red Rocket” is in cinemas now

[see also: Jim Broadbent is a joy to watch as an ageing art thief in The Duke]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror